The Upside Down: S U R V I V E interview
Best known for their Stranger Things soundtrack, we talk to S U R V I V E about synths, sophomore album RR7349 and what's next for the four-piece ahead of their UK tour
For the most part, bands tend to follow a formulaic structure: vocals, guitars, bass and drums. In a synth band, however, roles are not strictly set – or so say Austin-based quartet S U R V I V E, who prefer to let the synths decide.
“There’s no rule necessarily of 'this is how it goes down',” explains Kyle Dixon, jokingly referred to as ‘the conductor’ by his bandmates. “Sometimes the synthesisers themselves have limits or can excel at different things,” adds Michael Stein, ‘the best engineer and producer’ in the band and the only member based outside of Austin, in Dallas.
With everyone in the band essentially playing the same instrument, their writing process is often quite different to that of a regular band. “Sometimes one person will have a song that’s 60% done and other people will add parts to it… or some people will get together and work on something,” adds Mark Donica.
“It’s usually one or two people’s individual efforts that eventually becomes a group effort, and after that becomes its own thing for our live version,” agrees Adam Jones, co-founder of Holodeck Records, the label on which the band reissued their 2012 debut album HD015 at the end of last year.
S U R V I V E on new album RR7349
Riding on a wave of unexpected popularity in the latter half of 2016, following the success of Stein and Dixon’s Grammy-nominated score for Netflix’s 80s-style sci-fi thriller series Stranger Things, S U R V I V E released their much-anticipated second album RR7349, named after its catalogue number like all the band’s releases.
“(RR7349) was finished for a while before (Stranger Things)… we were just looking for a place for it to come out,” says Dixon. That place turned out to be metal label Relapse Records, whose roster includes Mastodon, The Dillinger Escape Plan and the charmingly-named Dying Fetus. It might seem an odd fit for an electronic band, but Dixon believes it allows their music to reach a wider audience: “I think a lot of those people will like our music as well as metal,” he suggests, “but they wouldn’t know about us if we put out our album on some other more niche electronic cosmic label.”
Their shared openness to and passion for all kinds of music is what brought them together as a band, with influences ranging from Italodisco to hip-hop. “If you listen to our first EP, you kind of get an idea of how it all started coming together,” continues Dixon. “There’s a little more of a disco thing, it’s pretty cosmic, there’s even a little rap kind of vibe.”
The rap influence seems to mainly stem from Stein’s time spent working in a studio in Dallas, where most of his clients were rap artists. “We did stuff kind of around the time that D-town boogie was a thing,” adds Stein.
But S U R V I V E’s music is rooted in 70s and 80s electronica, with nods to krautrock, psychedelia and dark ambient music. “We all started getting into old stuff from the 70s and the 80s, and listening to similar music,” says Donica. “But we gravitated towards the more serious-sounding... I don’t want to say 'darker' stuff.”
"What would Eno say?"
The band’s 70s obsession becomes even more apparent when at one point during the conversation, Stein holds up a card which reads ‘Try faking it.’ It's taken from Oblique Strategies: a deck of cards with a different statement printed on each one, which was released by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 as a way of helping artists combat creative blocks.
“When you weren’t sure what to do in your writing or whatever, you would just draw a card; these really obscure statements,” says Dixon. “You’re supposed to take the advice or just interpret that statement however you want to.” Do they ever use them to help with their own creative blocks though? “If somebody sees them sitting there and we’re in a crunch or something, we’re like, 'Wait a minute, what would Eno say?'” concludes Stein.
With a brief stint of UK and European shows coming up this month in support of the album, the band have started to think about transporting all the equipment needed for their live show across the pond. “We’re having to change the set-ups a little bit for flying everything but generally they’ll be comparable to what we would have here,” says Dixon.
Although they don’t have strictly set roles during the writing and recording process, when it comes to performing live there is a little more regularity. “Kyle always has the drum machine," Jones explains. "And I always play the keyboards that have multiple notes and all the chords, but then everything else can be anybody.
“A lot of the time, when we bring a song from the studio into the live setting, we’ll just devise how it makes the most sense for us to play it. Sometimes somebody just wrote a part that they enjoy playing a lot so they want to play it live. That’s cool, they can do that if their gear allows them to.”
S U R V I V E's plans for 2017
While they've toyed with the idea of making music that isn’t completely synth-based, the chances of any of their upcoming work straying too far away from their blueprint is unlikely. “We’ve used samples and other weird stuff that isn’t quite synthesisers before so yeah, I would say I could see us making some music that wasn’t synth-based,” says Jones. “It might be more abstract and weird but we’re not going to whip out acoustic guitars or anything like that anytime soon, that’s for sure.”
The others seem less open to the idea, however. “I can’t imagine us making a record that isn’t heavily reliant on synths,” counters Dixon. “They’re all going to be synth-based but we might have a non-synth element at some stage.”
Most recently, the band curated the music for Sensory, the multi-dimensional 'Immersive Restaurant Experiment' at Sugar Mountain Festival in Melbourne, Australia. Collaborating alongside visual artist Daniel Arsham and chef Peter Gunn, together they created a 60-minute set menu narrative bringing together food, sound and visuals.
They've even had time to start work on a new album: “We’ve got some progress done on a new album but it’s still in the works,” explains Jones. “Over the next year, we’ll probably finish it up. But I think we might do a couple of smaller releases, like EPs or various other non-LP stuff if we can, maybe remixes or a live album,” he adds. Just don’t hold your breath for that acoustic S U R V I V E album coming out quite yet.
S U R V I V E play The Art School, Glasgow on 20 Feb & Deaf Institute, Manchester on 21 Feb